• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.
Airplanes landing at the international airport at Mumbai (Bombay) barely miss the corrugated shantytown rooftops crowding the end of the runway. For many visitors, this is their closest encounter with the reality facing more than half of Mumbai’s 18 million citizens. But since the success of “Slumdog Millionaire,” slum tourism is on the rise here.
Krishna Poojari, cofounder of Reality Tours, is one of the tour guides who lead Westerners around Dharavi, the backdrop to Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning film. With 1.5 million inhabitants in nearly three square miles of swampland, Dharavi is Asia’s largest slum.
The stench of open sewers fills the air. Our group creeps its way down damp gullies only wide enough to pass through sideways. Families and microfactories coexist within inches of each other. Women in saris brush their hair next to enormous bread ovens. In the industrial districts, recycled plastic set out to dry covers rooftops, vast clay ovens spew thick black smoke, and bare-chested men pour molten aluminum into molds.
The tour forbids cameras, and the company states that 80 percent of the profits from the tours are put into a slum kindergarten and education center through Reality Cares, a nongovernmental organization. Chris Way, cofounder of Reality Tours, reports a steady 50 percent increase in attendees each year since it began in 2004. About 210 tourists pass through the slum each week. There are four tours each day and groups are never larger than eight people.
If Western tourists feel self-conscious about paying to see poverty, they shouldn’t. Residents are far too busy to notice. Dharavi is home to around 15,000 small businesses (ranging from recycling, pottery, and embroidery to bakeries, soap factories, and leather tanning) and generates some $700 million each year. It is a crowded, chaotic, but industrious and inspirational community.